Don’t argue with someone who buys ink by the barrel–or should you?

It’s been one of the standard tenets of crisis communication, PR and media engagement: never pick a fight with someone who buys ink by the barrel. The point is, of course, you can’t win. They control access to the people whose opinion matters, and they can always have the last word.

There are several important corollaries to this basic rule: Don’t run from the media when they come calling, don’t try to get a correction to egregiously wrong stories, don’t ever suggest that they anything but upright and disinterested.

All of these are based on the perspective that they are powerful, and you, without the same power to reach the masses have to treat them with deference and respect. It’s wise counsel in a situation where non-power deals with power. But, I see increasing signs that this kind of deference is changing–and the reasons for it are clear.

There is the unprecedented attacks of Sarah Palin against the “lamestream media.” Let’s agree to not get into personal assessments of Palin and her presidential prospects. But let’s agree that it is quite remarkable for someone with aspirations to the highest office to make one of the primary elements of her campaign attacks on the media on whom she presumably depends for her political future. She also includes (inadvertently or not) her own employer Fox News in her attacks on the lamestream media.

But, it is not just Palin who is tweaking the media. The White House press corps is getting more and more exercised over the diminishing access that the Obama administration is offering. Even the Afghanistan draw-down announcement was limited to a single print pool reporter.

I’m reminded that for some announcements the Obama administration limited itself to its social media outlets, that the President now has about 9 million followers on his Twitter account (surpassed only by Lady Gaga I understand), and that companies like Amazon have ignored the media making major announcements directly through social media.

That, of course, provides one important clue why the old rule about arguing with someone who buys ink by the barrel may no longer apply. Social media and the Internet provide the opportunity to connect directly with the people who matter rather than relying on the media to mediate the message. Why would you rely on someone to tell your story when you can tell it directly and particularly when they have demonstrated that they are not necessarily going to tell it in the way you would like it told.

That’s the second reason why this starts to make sense. Media reports have become increasingly emotion laden, more blame oriented, and more focused on provoking rather than enlightening in the recent past. (These aren’t my assessments alone–Jack Fuller re emotion, Pew re blame game, and Economist re provoking). As one outlet after another has fallen by the wayside, those who are left are fighting for their lives and the only way to survive is by attracting audiences. Anything that helps them do that is eagerly accepted–and that causes a lot of problems (do Toyota’s accelerator problems ring a bell, or how about the reports that oil will reach Europe, or that Japan radiation will dangerously hit US?)

Third, related to both of these, is the fact that today’s media is not trusted. They receive lower scores in public trust than any other industry–including amazingly Big Oil. So while their heightened competition causes them to increase distrust in the politicians, people and organizations they cover, their own trust level declines. That’s why it is pretty darn safe for Palin to attack their credibility–it conforms to much of public opinion. It’s why Obama does not risk much of a political backlash when reporters gripe bitterly about restricted access.

The implications for crisis communications are pretty significant. If you do master the art of social media and direct communication, the options before you widen. Including the option of saying to the mass of satellite trucks that have gathered: everything we have to say is on our incident website or our Facebook page.


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